The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —
The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
I ran across this poem in a book called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (about which more some other time) and it made me think.
Dickinson was, by all accounts a recluse. She seldom went out and, when visitors came, she sometimes sat behind a screen while she talked to them. She never dared to submit her poems for publication. Less than a dozen were published in her lifetime, and those only because someone else submitted them without her knowledge. Her wealthy, loving family sheltered and nurtured her so that she never had to face the outside world.
Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.
And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.
Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.
Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.
Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.
And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof.
I call bullshit. I’m not saying none of those people had assorted mental disorders. My point is that we can’t tell from this distance in time.
In none of these cases, as far as I know, did any of the aforementioned people see a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a phrenologist. None were diagnosed with any psychiatric condition, and no record of such a diagnosis has come down to us from any reliable source. Some even lived before psychiatry was invented.
People – mental health workers, but also art and literary critics, biographers, and the general public – have looked at these extraordinary people’s lives and work and decided that their behavior and their art look like those of a person who might be bipolar or obsessive-compulsive or psychotic. (They also like to retro-diagnose physical conditions there is no record of or only vague names for. King Tut, Henry VIII, and Napoleon are particularly good theoretical patients.)
Why the tendency to ascribe mental disorders to famous people? I can see two reasons, beyond the thrill of solving a mystery and feeling clever.
The first is the old saying about there being a thin line between madness and genius. These historical figures were geniuses, so they must have been mad. Or as we say now, suffering from mental disorders.
The other is the need for role models and inspiration. If Van Gogh could become one of the most famous artists ever (though not successful in his own lifetime), you too may rise above – even use – your disorder to accomplish greatness.
It’s possible, I guess, but it’s not likely. Certainly those with mental disorders can aspire to and achieve rich, full lives, satisfying relationships and jobs and artistic pursuits. These are the ordinary accomplishments of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness, and it’s a small miracle that people can achieve any one or more of these. Not everyone does – again with or without mental troubles or psychiatric diagnoses.
And for me, at least, it’s enough.
Can the spark of imaginative genius strike a person with a mental disorder? Of course. Can that person succeed and achieve lasting fame? Maybe, though the odds aren’t good. Is a person saying, “Look, I can be Van Gogh!” likely to fall short? Almost certainly. Can that failure to achieve greatness make a person feel worse about himself or herself instead of better? You tell me.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, and nothing that says a person with a psychiatric diagnosis can’t do just that. It’s a good idea for anyone. (As one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, “Aim high. You may still miss the target but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”)
But pinning your hopes on a similarity with a non-psychiatric, perhaps non-existent, diagnosis of a genius may not be the best way to get there.
Better to look in these geniuses’ work for insights that can help you understand your own condition or pull you through tough times. Here’s another of Emily Dickinson’s poems that has always spoken to me about the experience of a depressive crisis and its aftermath.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
Was Emily herself depressed? We’ll never really know. And as long as we have her poems, I don’t really care.